Habits, Cultures and Beliefs. James Ashley (b.1833)

Habits cultures and beliefs with the population of the 19th century changed dramatically as the country evolved from an era in which manual labour proved fundamental to the progression of economic stability, to an industrial revolutionized era in which the transition included going from manual production methods to machines. This transition which took place from about 1760 to midway through the 19th century had a strong impact on recreation. Many laborers faced a decline within their time of leisure.“New working practices ushered in by the rise of the factory system severely reduced the number of hours that most workers had for leisure.” (Croll pg.397) This recession of leisure time within the population helped shape and define class segregation, by creating habits and cultures which were easily labelled as either proletariat or bourgeoisie based, in more simpler terms, working or upper class.

Image of the Industrial Era, Great Britain
Image of the Industrial Era, Great Britain

James Ashley’s memoir is rather vivid, as he doesn’t divulge into aspects of his leisure time with much detail. However the details he does give represent a break in stereotypical conventions. Much like in my audience and purpose post, I mentioned how James Ashley broke stereotypes places above him, which were created by his working class roots. This is evident again with his participation of bourgeois like recreation. After James had moved to London in the year 1856, he illustrates on numerous occasions how he spent his leisure time. He often visited preaching services given out by Charles Spurgeon and it is there he met his wife. “I rushed all over the place trying to find a seat: at last on the upper gallery I found a vacant one next to the “Pearl of Great Price” who in the next year became my dearly loved wife.” (Ashey pg.11)  The audience of these services tended to be lower middle class or respectable working class figures. This represents James’s belief that he classed himself as respectable, rather than the average working class man, who would usually be associated with places such as the pub during their times of recreation. Due to the revolutionized era in which London became, aspects of leisure and culture became increasingly divided by class.

“Whereas leisure pursuits had often brought rich and poor together in the pre-industrial villages, now the great industrial towns with their slums and suburbs encouraged the evolution of class-specific leisure cultures.” (Croll pg.397)

Victorian Leisure
Victorian Leisure

Besides the respectable preaching services in which James and his wife Jane attended, he also mentions other forms of recreation he would partake in during his time of leisure. On page sixteen of his memoir, James mentions that “in July of this year (1862) my two sisters came to visit us” (Ashley pg.16). He then progresses to tell me places in which they visited during their stay. “Among other places we visited with my sisters was Madame Tussaud s.” (Ashley pg.16) Madame Tussaud’s was a museum which hosted sculptures made of wax, it was an incredibly popular form of recreation in which people from all over the world would go and see. Maria Tussaud who was born in Strasbourg, France in 1760 sculptured many famous people who were prominent within the world of politics, such as Benjamin Franklin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

However this form of recreation would usually be distinguished between working class people, as it was predominantly seen as a more respectable middle class form of leisure. “Tussaud’s fitted in well with the often puritanical public morality of the Victorian middle classes.” (Pilbeam pg.128) The divisions between the two forms of leisure of the proletariat and the bourgeois, created an image of class segregation. Recreation such as Madame Tussaud’s compared to recreation within the pub and the music hall created two very different set of cultures by force of habit. The two would compete for popularity, creating and reinforcing binary oppositions of class and entertainment. “This organization waged war on other popular entertainments, particularly music halls, which sold alcohol and food as well as song and became very popular with working people.” (Pilbeam pg.128) If James picked a side in which he favored, it would have to be said that he pursued a more respectable form of leisure, participating in bourgeois like entertainment.

Madame Tussaud's Logo
Madame Tussaud’s Logo


A ‘battle’ between the two forms of entertainment would pursue over the century. The respected middle class, conducted by the bourgeois would look to sophisticate London by stamping down on crime committed by the working class. “In this great campaign to ‘civilize’ London, the police were often unwilling agents of politicians who did not understand the practical difficulties of imposing middle class values on a vast working class population.” (Inwood Ch.19)  The juxtaposition between working class people and places containing binge drinking and gambling, such as pubs and music halls is one which only got stronger during the new industrial age. Where workers before would manually have to carry out their profession, now new machinery would take their place, causing less need for their work. This instilled a level of laziness, which then led to boredom and ultimately depression. Would it be false to believe that the introduction of this new machinery was the catalyst to working men turning to the pub? “The argument that industrial life and division of labour had become intolerably monotonous to many workers was, of course, a commonplace of nineteenth century” (McKibben pg.139)

The invention of power looms
The invention of power looms

This crisis is evident within James’s memoir during his time as a hat shaper. “A new partner had come into the firm, very keen on introducing there a shaping machine which was practically ruining the hand shapers.” (Ashley pg.25) However fortunately for James, the machines were “never a success and after about twelve years of effort it was given up.” (Ashley pg.25) It would have been interesting to see how James would of reacted if the hat shaping machines were a success. It may have caused him to lose his job and result in a financial crisis within the family home and if so how would he have reacted? Would he turn to abide by his stereotypical expectations and look to alcohol to resolve his problems? I highly doubt it, as one thing I have learnt from James Ashley within his memoir is that although he is able to acknowledge the class he derives from, he takes great pleasure in his ability to manoeuvre around bourgeois expectations, instead concentrating on his own, which contemplate financial security and family prosperity.


Ashley James, Untitled, pg1-50,(c, 12,500 words). Brunel University Library. Vol:1 No:24

McKibbin Ross, The Ideologies of Class : Social Relations in Britain 1880-1950. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 1990

Inwood Stephen, City Of Cities: The Birth Of Modern London. London. Pan MacMillan. 2011

Pilbeam Pamela, Madame Tussaud: And the History of Waxworks. London. A&C Black. 2006

Croll Andy, ‘Popular Leisure and Sport’ in Chris Williams (ed) A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain. Oxford. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2004


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